Nov. 3, 2011 at 7:14 AM ET
Consumers Union, the world's largest independent product-testing organization and publisher of Consumer Reports, just celebrated its 75th anniversary.
Over the years, Consumers Union testers have used and abused about 155,000 products: car seats, cell phones, computers, eyeglasses, refrigerators, sneakers, space heaters, toasters and washing machines, plus cars, trucks and SUVs, just to name a few.
When they first tested vacuum cleaners back in 1936, a couple of models were found to have “a slight electrical shock hazard.” Today, you don’t have to worry about getting zapped by your vacuum. But the magazine’s latest tests show the performance you get still varies greatly from model to model.
I was in New York last week, for the big 75th anniversary celebration and had the chance to speak to Jim Guest, the president of Consumer Reports.
“I love what I do,” Guest told me. “Consumer Reports is an American icon. We’re probably the most trusted institution in America. We’re absolutely independent. People know we’re telling the truth and helping millions and millions of people.”
Guest says today’s products are safer and more reliable than they were 75 years ago. There are also better regulations in place to protect you. But he says advertising, in many cases, “is just as misleading today as it was back then.”
Here is a bit more of our conversation:
You’ve never accepted advertising, which means you can call it as you see it. But why do you fight so hard to keep companies from using your ratings in their ads? If you find a product to be top-rated, why don’t you want a company to say that?
To really understand what we’ve got, you have to see the whole article. Picking just a little quote here or a little fact there, that’s not really serving consumers well. And you’re right. We never take any corporate contributions or corporate money or any kind. We don’t take free samples. We have anonymous shoppers around the country who buy the products we test, so no one can rig-up the products. We maintain strict independence. Our only interest is consumers.
Consumer advocates had some great victories when the Democrats controlled Congress. But now, Republican lawmakers are trying to roll back the clock. You and other consumer groups are spending a lot of time and money to stop that, which takes away from efforts to get new protections in place.
We’re working real hard. We fought for protections against financial scams. We fought for safe drugs, and safe toys. And they’re at risk. The forces on the other side are trying to capitalize on the consumer and we’re trying to protect the consumer.
You see the federal government as the answer to some of these problems, as a way to protect the consumer. But the current sentiment in this country right now among many people is that government is bad and we’ve got to get it off our backs.
We believe in a free market. We think consumers ought to be able to make independent choices. But they’ve got to be informed. Who can understand a credit card contract that’s 40 or 50 pages long? We just want to make sure that things are transparent, that people can understand what’s being offered and that they understand the risks. (We want) regulations requiring transparency and requiring that the truth be told — what’s wrong with that?
Your tests often uncover products that are dangerous or simply don’t perform as promised. Do companies make changes; are things fixed because you find these defects?
That’s one of the tremendously rewarding things about working at Consumer Reports. We’ll rate a product that doesn’t measure up, and then we open up our records. If the manufacturer says ‘why did you rate us poorly,’ we’ll show them the test we used. We’ll show them the data on their product. And fairly often, when we come back to rate that product again a year or two later, they’ve made improvements and corrected the deficiencies. That’s incredibly satisfying.
More Information: Consumer Reports at 75